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SPORTS | 29-06-2018 09:05

Big weaknesses to address for Sampaoli and the squad ahead of France match

After the euphoria here is a look at some of the key issues facing Jorge Sampaoli’s team.

MASCHERANO

If Javier Mascherano is supposed to be protecting the defence, he’s not doing a very good job. With 146 international appearances, the 34-year-old has plenty of experience. But instead of offering the protective screen in front of the back four, Mascherano is often proving to be a weak link.

As his bloodied face on Tuesday showed, there is no doubting his commitment. But his judgment and passing ability is in question. Two horribly misplaced passes gave Nigeria dangerous positions to attack from, while it was Mascherano’s clumsy challenge that led to Nigeria’s equalizing goal from the penalty spot.

In his defence, there may be mitigating circumstances. Although a holding midfielder by trade, Mascherano dropped deeper when deployed as a center half for Barcelona over the past few years. Now back in his traditional position, he can appear caught in two minds as to whether to push up or stay back.

‘BIG’ NAME VETERANS

Ángel Di María’s failure to control a simple pass during a promising counter-attack against Nigeria was a sad sight for such a fine talent. As the ball flew off his foot and went out of play, a helpless look formed on Di María’s face.

Long considered one of the world’s best wingers, the 30-year-old Paris Saint-Germain player is not living up to his reputation in Russia. He looked despondent when he was taken off against Nigeria with 20 minutes left, his selfconfidence glaringly absent.

It is feasible he is still affected by what happened during the season with PSG. Di Maria was PSG’s most in-form player heading into the first leg of its Champions League last-16 game against Real Madrid on Feb. 14, but was surprisingly left out entirely for crunch matches.

But Mascherano and Di Maria are not the only big-name players performing well below their best. There’s Gonzalo Higuaín too. The burly striker looked nervous and heavy-legged against Nigeria, blazing a great chance high and wide with the score 1-1 with 10 minutes left. In the end, he was reprieved by Rojo’s late winner, but it was not the finish expected of a forward with a combined 267 goals for Real Madrid, Napoli and Juventus.

DYBALA DILEMMA?

Fans hoping to see Paulo Dybala, one of the brightest attacking talents in football, playing in Russia may not get their wish. The 24-year-old forward regularly impresses Juventus fans with his trickery and spectacular goals — scoring 26 times in 46 appearances last season — but for whatever reason, Sampaoli does not seem to need him.

FRENCH THREAT

Although France have yet to find top form, Argentina’s creaking defence will be under threat from its highly rated forwards. Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele are two of the fastest players in the world, while Antoine Griezmann was top scorer at the European Championship two years ago. Imposing striker Olivier Giroud, meanwhile, is one of the best headers of the ball around.

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